I tend to shout at the radio. If I am in a public place, and BBC News is on a television screen, all that is missing from my recent tirade is a placard with “Jesus is coming” and an empty bottle of whisky hiding in a paper bag. My newspapers are saturated in spit from my latest exclamation.
You can imagine the decibels I reached when I picked up a copy of The Telegraph, and spotted a story on Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time. The comedian-cum-campaigner has come under fire for addressing communities minister Penny Mordaunt as “love”.
Is the Trews presenter being criticised for a dialect – a sociological language? Or is this detracting from a valid point raised about paying the pensions for the Fire service?
I am very Northern. I don’t own a whippet, nor do I smoke a pipe – but I occasionally wear a flatcap. I am in no control over my Lancastrian accent unless I put on my faux upper class elocution, which somehow transforms into an Australian twang. I miss the odd ‘h’ from a word; I sound harsher in my pronunciation of “mass-ta” over “mah-ster”; and I would be more at home on Coronation Street than Downton Abbey.
You can take the boy out of Blackburn – but can you take the Blackburn out of the boy? My ear has chosen the way I say words, but my brain chooses the words that leave my mouth.
Language evolves. If a word or a phrase has been deemed unacceptable, its use will dwindle and eventually expire. A Victorian term for the Devil was “Mr Spitfoot”, but is the mythological demon named with the title “mister” anymore? Satan, sure. Lucifer, maybe. Perhaps it shows the renowned Victorian respect and formality compared to the 21st Century colloquialisms.
Text speak developed as a result of advance of communication. “Soz” and “Lol” are bastardisations of longer phrases. I, in fact, pondered whether or not I could use the term “bastardisation”, which in itself contains the lexis of “bastard” – a synonym for an illegitimate son or a profanity; the same way that “bitch” is used to describe a female dog or an insult. An earlier form of text speak is “berk”, which is misinterpreted a tame way of calling someone an idiot. It is an abbreviation for the Cockney rhyming slang Berkley Hunt (I’ll let you figure that one out).
Did Russell Brand use the vocative address with unintended actions? If I were to call you “sweetheart”, irrespective of gender, I do not think that your heart would be a diabetics’ worst nightmare – I imagine it would taste quite bitter. If I were to call you “sunshine”, I do not think you are emitted light and heat radiation travelling to the planet from eight minutes ago. If I were to call you “pet”, I do not think you should be on a leash – although I am sure that tickles the fancy of others.
But words can have double meaning, and the delivery of the lexis can contribute to its interpretation. Pronouns were particularly powerful in Shakespearean plays – an address was essentially the same definition, but different etiquettes. If you were to address a superior in the Bard’s plays, it would always be “you”; if they were an equal or an inferior, it would be “thou”. Was Brand delivering “love” as a term of endearment or as a term of degradation? Indeed, he was cheesed off about the Conservative-Lib Dem government not paying the fire service’s pensions, but perhaps used it to disarm and demean.
I guffaw whenever the bank clerk calls me “sir” or “Mr McLaughlin” – and also when I check my account balance. But there would be something terribly amiss if this professional would start calling me “petal” or “honey”. Personal nicknames are just that: personal. In a professional environment, and one could argue that Question Time constitutes as this, formalities still count. Nick Robinson would never call the Prime Minister “Dave” (a relatively tame name), or David Dimbleby would call Nigel Farage “that purple faced casual racist who has far too much airtime on our channel”.
In February, the Speaker of the House wrote to the three main party leaders – David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – asking them to stop their MPs engaging in “public school twittishness”. The Lib Dem leader called for Prime Minister’s Questions to be reformed, and during a Q&A session on Mumsnet, he said:
“It’s just ridiculous. You can’t even call people by their name. You can’t even address people like human beings.
“And so the whole thing is in a language which wasn’t used since 1867 and in a kind of highly aggressive, sort of, macho, chest‑beating, testosterone‑driven idiom which is deeply off‑putting to – to any normal person.”
This is when the formality dehumanises a political conversation. When robotic terms such as the “Right Honourable gentleman of…” are used in lieu of actual names, people transform to titles and not humans. It works both ways. There can be overfamiliarity and dehumanisation.
Language is subjective. It continues to change, diminish and grow. In his wonderful rant on language pedants, Stephen Fry argues that there are more pedants around; it seems, than those who used the evolving language to write stories, poems and love letters. He calls them “dense and deaf” to language development. New words are “ugly” to the pedants as Picasso, Eliot and Stravinksy were once thought ugly; the same goes for Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.
The vocative address “love” is a term from yesteryear, as are many Estuary colloquialisms that come from Russell Brand’s vocal chords. Dialect is a tale as old as time, and it is worth preserving from a historical, curatorial point of view – but their interpretation has changed over time and appears out-dated. Should we ever condemn someone for choosing language that has been readily available for him or her from birth? That depends on the situation. If it were used as a weapon to diminish the female speaker, then that should not be accepted. The critics can be compared to the pedants who seethe at language development. Russell Brand remarked as soon as the vocative address was uttered that he was “working on the sexist language”. And perhaps we are all working on it, and it will evolve – but perhaps we should excuse some of the old guard whose intention was not to offend, but to communicate.
You can watch the full episode of Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time here.